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George Frederic Watts

George Frederic Watts, by Henry Wyndham Phillips, circa 1850 -NPG 1378 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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George Frederic Watts

by Henry Wyndham Phillips
Oil on canvas, circa 1850
35 1/2 in. x 25 1/4 in. (902 mm x 641 mm) overall
NPG 1378

This portraitback to top

Sitter and artist were closely acquainted from at least 1847, and were both members of the Cosmopolitan Club. This portrait was probably executed in Watts’s studio at 30 Charles Street, [1] its somewhat penumbrous nature suggesting a winter or evening occasion.

Blunt dates the portrait to around 1850, [2] which accords with the sitter’s apparent age, and the evidence of costume and other early images: Watts is shown bearded in the 1853 self-portrait, and in the photograph of 1854 (see ‘All known portraits’).

In 1850 Watts was struggling to secure his rightful reputation, mixing social realism with allegory and portraiture in his output. His campaign to decorate public buildings was unpopular and he felt that the Royal Academy had hung his Good Samaritan (Manchester AG) poorly. He suffered a private setback when Virginia Pattle married the future Earl Somers in October.

The half-length profile format is allusive of Italian work admired by both artist and sitter. It provides a strong and rather unusual view of the young Watts, with no trace of the aura of greatness which clings to later representations of him, but a distinct sense of gravity and self-possession. The portrait was perhaps once larger, as the painted surface continues to the edge of the stretcher on all sides. However, strong pentimenti around the head may indicate that the image was originally conceived as a head-and-shoulders, and then revised to include the hand holding the palette, which is loosely sketched. Elsewhere the paint surface is or has become slightly uneven.

For details of the artist’s career, see the entry for Henry Wyndham Phillips.

Around the same time as the present work, Watts executed two portraits of Phillips, a preliminary head-and-shoulders drawing and the subsequent large three-quarter-length oil which Bryant surmises was set in the Charles Street studio. [3] In the latter, Phillips’s dress is comparable to Watts’s here and the two artists may have agreed on a mutual portrait session. [4] Watts’s depiction of Phillips is far livelier than Phillips’s portrayal of Watts, which may reflect the latter’s more sober temperament.

This is one of three likenesses of Watts included in Phillips’s studio sale. [5] It was presented by Henry Wagner in 1904.[6]

Dr Jan Marsh

Footnotesback to top

1) In 1853 the rooms became the Cosmopolitan Club meeting place, and in 1854 Phillips took over Watts’s studio there. Our thanks to Veronica F. Gould for additional information regarding this and the other portraits of Watts.
2) Blunt 1975, p.74n.
3) Bryant 2004a, no.25; lot 208 in Phillips’s sale (see note 5 below) and now coll. Viscount Allendale; for details see ‘All known portraits’ in the entry for Phillips.
4) Bryant 2004a dates Watts’s canvas to c.1852–5 by reference to Phillips’s serious knee injury in January 1852; stylistically an earlier date is indicated.
5) Christie’s, 8–10 Apr. 1869 (153, 174, 244); as lot 153 was a monochrome study, the present work must have been either lot 174 or 244.
6) As yet unidentified, but possibly antiquarian Henry Wagner (1840–1926), whose portrait by Hugh Goldwin Riviere was painted for the French Protestant Hospital in London; he also bequeathed works to Brighton & Hove M.

Physical descriptionback to top

Half-length, profile to right, left hand visible holding a brown wooden palette, with healthy complexion, hazel-coloured eyes, dark brown hair, dressed in a white shirt, black velvet necktie and jacket, the latter showing greyish-blue lining or highlights, and traces of a brown waistcoat, green background colour.

Provenanceback to top

Henry Wagner, by whom given 1904.

View all known portraits for Henry Wyndham Phillips

View all known portraits for George Frederic Watts

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